Sunday, August 31, 2008

The best thing I've read today

From Daniel Gilbert's book Stumbling on Happiness:

My friends tell me that I have a tendency to point out problems without offering solutions, but they never tell me what I should do about it.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The 40 greatest grunge songs

For the sake of convenience, here's the whole top 40 grunge list in one place:











Short URL for this post: tinyurl.com/grunge40

"One more special message to go, and then I'm done, and I can go home"

So, that's the grunge list.

I'd be remiss (not really, but I just love starting sentences with "I'd be remiss") if I didn't recognize some of the people who made this great music who aren't around to make any more of it.

It's a commonplace that rock 'n' roll and jazz are fueled by drugs. [UPDATE: This post inspired this post: 10 theories why artists are so prone to drug use.] Well, as I've discussed in another context, it's easy to think about what actually exists for us to see and hear; it's harder to think about what doesn't exist but should.

Shannon Hoon, lead singer of Blind Melon (#24), died of a cocaine overdose on October 21, 1995. He was 28.

Layne Staley, leader singer of Alice in Chains (#14, #5), died from a mixture of heroin and cocaine on April 5, 2002. He was 34. Near the end of his life, he weighed 86 pounds despite being 6'1". He openly admitted that he no longer enjoyed getting high or anything else in life, and that he knew his use of heroin was going to kill him soon.

Layne Staley

I vividly remember when I was 13, sitting around watching MTV on April 8, 1994. Kurt Loder announced on MTV News that Kurt Cobain had been found dead in his home and that the cause of death was "a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head." I was so young that the meaning of that delicate phrasing didn't register with me, so I asked my mom about it. She had to explain: "That means he killed himself."

He had died 3 days earlier -- like Layne Staley, on April 5. He was 27. He left behind, among many others, a one-year-old daughter.

Kurt Cobain museum

Nirvana (#18, #9, #1) released only three proper studio albums. In an interview near the end of his life, Cobain was critical of the band's soft/loud formula and talked about wanting to branch out stylistically. He was disappointed that the band up to that point had emphasized the heavy side of that formula instead of a poppier, Beatley side. We'll never get to hear how the band might have developed; the analogy would be if John Lennon had died not in 1980 but in 1965. They should have done so much more. But they changed the direction of rock music in the few years they were around. (As I said yesterday, I realize that other bands have a better claim to inventing grunge, but Nirvana perfected it and reached a lot more people.)

For days after the news broke, MTV constantly reran the Nirvana Unplugged concert, and I, in turn, watched it constantly. I started learning to play guitar that summer...


Cobain tribute bench in Seattle



(Photo of Staley from Birol Es. Photo of Cobain gallery by Christian Payne. Photo of Cobain tribute bench in Seattle by Eric Shoemaker.)

Friday, August 29, 2008

And the top 5 grunge songs are...

1. Nirvana - Lithium

The band members themselves assumed that this would be the song that would break them into the mainstream. They never expected it to be overshadowed by you-know-what.

If I were really trying to make an accurate list, Nirvana would have to take up at least 10, maybe 20, out of the top 40. But that wouldn't be very interesting.

So this song is just a stand-in for all the others I've had to leave out.

What really makes this song for me is Krist Novoselic's bassline. While the guitar part in the verse starts at the bottom and climbs upward, the bass starts at the top and descends. He wasn't generally a flashy bassist, but he clearly gave this song some extra attention. He also does some tasteful noodling in the "I'm not gonna crack" section. Computer speakers aren't great at transmitting bass parts, so I recommend getting out your copy of Nevermind and cranking up the bass.



It's common to say that other bands like the Pixies and the Melvins got a raw deal because they were making music slightly earlier that had a huge influence on Nirvana. Well, I'm sorry, but if there are great songs by the Pixies and the Melvins, I haven't heard them. Which composers from the classical era deserve more respect -- Haydn and Mozart, or Wagenseil and Monn? If you think all that matters is how early they appeared on the timeline of history, you'd have to say Wagenseil and Monn. Well, I know a lot of people who listen to Haydn and Mozart; I doubt if I know anyone who listens to Wagenseil or Monn.

Greatness isn't primarily a game of "I did it first!" It's about making art that touches a lot of people. They were the greatest.

(Click here for afterword.)

(Click here for the whole list.)

Thursday, August 28, 2008

And the top 5 grunge songs are...

2. Pearl Jam - Jeremy

Pearl Jam has never been one of my favorite bands. But I give them a lot of credit: they sincerely tried to make a work of art with this song, and they succeeded.

When it comes to musical composition, most bands are satisfied if they just write a nice melody for the verse and then another nice melody for the chorus. Not many bands are willing to devote this kind of care and attention to individually shaping the melody of each line to fit the lyrics and create a whole musical/dramatic arc.

Here's the disturbing video for this disturbing song:



And here's an impassioned live performance:



(Click here for song #1.)

(Click here for the whole list.)

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

And the top 5 grunge songs are...

3. Soundgarden - Outshined

I can't think of a more brilliant musical expression of raw testosterone than this.

I love the way all the instruments and vocals move together on "Show me the power child, I'd like to say / That I'm down on my knees today" -- like a machine with perfectly synchronized interlocking parts.

Focus on the interlude that starts just before 3:00. On the surface, there's not much going on here -- no key change or guitar solo or anything. But a gentle little passage like this, in a song that's otherwise anything but gentle, is the kind of thing that elevates a song, and distinguished Soundgarden from 99.99% of grunge bands.




(Click here for song #2.)

(Click here for the whole list.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

This will be my only blog post about the 2008 Democratic Convention

My mom is live-blogging the convention, and she uses a comment I just made over IM:

8:04: Governor Kathleen Sebelius. John IMs, "I love her symphonies."
Then, remembering Sebelius's extremely boring response to the last State of the Union address, I add:
She's still dull-ing it up.
She should stick to the symphonies
instead of speeches








Ahem! Sorry, got carried away there ... by one of the most moving pieces of music I've ever heard. (That's the first two movements of Sibelius's 1st, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen.) Back to the grunge...

And the top 5 grunge songs are...

4. The Smashing Pumpkins - Cherub Rock

Of all the bands on this list, the Smashing Pumpkins may be the one I most associate with the idea of freedom.

I don't think Billy Corgan is the greatest lyricist. I don't know or care what he's singing about. All that matters is that the song sounds like freedom.

Let me out!!!



(Click here for song #3.)

(Click here for the whole list.)

Monday, August 25, 2008

And the top 5 grunge songs are...

Now that we're into the home stretch of the grunge top 40, I'm going to roll out one of the last five songs every day this week...


5. Alice in Chains - Would?

For some reason, I've always found this to be one of the most emotionally affecting songs of the grunge era. I love the coda (the part that begins, "Am I wrong..."), when they shift to the relative major key with such a sense of absolute determination.



(Click here for song #4.)

(Click here for the whole list.)

Friday, August 22, 2008

The 40 greatest grunge songs (10-6)

(Click here for the whole list.)

And the top 10 grunge songs are...


10. The Toadies - Possum Kingdom


Unusually intelligent rock music.

Everything about this music -- the chord progressions, the asymmetrical meter, the adventurous song structure -- shows that they're thinking things through more than most bands. This only enhances, doesn't detract from, the emotion.




9. Nirvana - All Apologies

1-chord verse + 2-chord bridge = greatness

This is performance is from 1992, before the band recorded the song, so it's wonderfully rough around the edges:




8. Jane's Addiction - Mountain Song

One of those "this is what it's all about" songs. Very straightforward, but everything just comes together here.

Don't miss the guitar solo, in which Dave Navarro reins in his virtuosity just enough to avoid glam-rock territory.




7. Sonic Youth - Bull in the Heather

They're such a monumentally important and influential band that it feels wrong to pigeonhole them as "grunge." But I think this song fits in pretty well, with Kim Gordon's "I'm too lazy to sing an actual melody" ethos.

And those guitar noises!

10, 20, 30, 40...




6. Radiohead - Just

This is why Jonny Greenwood is an acclaimed guitarist. How many rock bands are even aware of the existence of the octatonic scale (a.k.a. diminished scale), let alone able to use it to such wonderfully stomach-churning effect?

Here's the famously enigmatic video:




ANNOUNCEMENT: Next week will be 100%, solid, uninterrupted grunge, as I unveil the top 5 songs, Monday through Friday, one day at a time! Stay tuned...

>>> #5 >>>

Thursday, August 21, 2008

My reading list, part 2

See this post for the beginning of the list, and the premise.

6. Upheavals of Thought - Martha Nussbaum

A thoughtful and emotional book arguing that emotions contain more thought than they're given credit for. 


7. Descartes's Error - Antonio Damosio

Sort of the flipside of #6: rational thought requires emotions -- contrary to the traditional belief that reason and feelings are distinct mental faculties that "d[on't] mix any more than oil and water."


8. Ruling Passions - Simon Blackburn

Similarly, this would go very well with #6 and #7. The basic position is: ethics depends on emotions, yet this doesn't mean that ethical principles are "relative" or "subjective." There's also an intriguing tangent on the connection between aesthetics and ethics. 


9. Is There a Duty to Obey the Law? - Christopher Heath Wellman & Alan John Simmons

Well? Is there?


10. Lifting the Fog of Legalese - Joseph Kimble

Trying to send "null and void" into the void.



Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Blog headings are pointless

3 instances of writers writing against their own genre:

1. There's a long tradition -- going back at least to 1936 -- of law review articles attacking law review articles. Judge Richard Posner's from a few years ago, for instance. My mom also wrote one much earlier -- it's excerpted in the block quote in this post.

2. This blog post attacking blog posts stirred up the blogosphere a few weeks ago.

3. Now there's an essay called "Why Essays Are So Damned Boring," by Cristina Nehring.

This essay helped me stop feeling guilty about not reading more "essay" essays -- the kinds of things that appear in the New Yorker, Harper's, and those annual Best American Essays books, as opposed to reporting or opinion pieces of the sort that are more common in my periodicals of choice, like the Washington Post and The New Republic.

I generally prefer straightforward analysis if I'm going to read about the world. If I'm not going to get tons of concrete information or rigorous arguments about how things work, then I'd rather just forget about the serious stuff altogether and listen to music or watch a movie. (And not a protest song or an ideological movie!) I'm less interested in some squishy grey area between the analytical/political and the creative/autobiographical.

Back to the essay... Nehring has some inspiring words:

We have grown terribly—if somewhat hypocritically—weary of larger truths. The smarter and more intellectual we count ourselves, the more adamantly we insist that there is no such thing as truth, no such thing as general human experience, that everything is plural and relative and therefore undiscussable.

Of course, everything is plural, everything is arguable, and there are limits to what we can know about other persons, other cultures, other genders. But there is also a limit to such humility; there is a point at which it becomes narcissism of a most myopic sort, a simple excuse to talk only about one’s own case, only about one’s own small area of specialization. Montaigne thought it the essayist’s duty to cross boundaries, to write not as a specialist (even in himself) but as a generalist, to speak out of turn, to assume, to presume, to provoke.

“Where I have least knowledge,” said the blithe Montaigne, “there do I use my judgment most readily.” ...

“The next best thing to a good sermon is a bad sermon,” said Montaigne’s follower and admirer Ralph Waldo Emerson, the first American essayist. In a good sermon we hear our own discarded thoughts brought “back to us by the trumpets of the last judgment,” in the words of Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance.” In a bad sermon we formulate those thoughts ourselves—through the practice of creative disagreement. If an author tells us “love is nothing but jealousy” and we disagree, it is far more likely that we will come up with our own theory of love than if we hear a simple autobiographical account of the author’s life. It is hard to argue with someone’s childhood memory—and probably inadvisable. It is with ideas that we can argue, with ideas that we can engage. ...

Today’s essayists need to be emboldened, and to embolden one another, to move away from timid autobiographical anecdote and to embrace—as their predecessors did—big theories, useful verities, daring pronouncements. We need to destigmatize generalization, aphorism, and what used to be called wisdom. We must rehabilitate the notion of truth—however provisional it might be.
Of course, this argument is setting up a delicious paradox: if you vehemently disagree with her thesis, you've proved it!

The last sentence in that block quote is a "good sermon" to me, since it echoes this post.

And the Montaigne quote ("Where I have least knowledge...") could serve as a powerful rebuke to the anti-blog blog post linked above. More about that later...


UPDATE: This post is making my mom nervous!

Monday, August 18, 2008

My reading list, part 1

As I've been transitioning to a new town and job, I've also been rearranging my book collection -- rediscovering books from back home in Madison and bringing them to my new home in Albany. Below are some of the ones I want to get to relatively soon. Some of them are books I'm in the middle of reading, some are ones I've read before but want to refresh my memory about, and some are just books I haven't read yet. All of them are books I might do blog posts about in the future, but for now I just want to have this list on the blog so that I'll be more motivated to read these:

1. The Post-American World - Fareed Zakaria

What in the world is going on?

(Video interview with the author.)


2. The Future of Freedom - Fareed Zakaria

If you want "liberal democracy," you need to have the "liberal" part before the "democracy."


3. Modern Times - Paul Johnson


A history of most of the 20th century. He's overly biased toward the right, and he's supposedly prone to outright factual errors. But when I want to read about history, I just can't not read Paul Johnson, with his passionate writing style and his knack for highlighting the human, quirky side of history.


4. The Mysterious Flame - Colin McGinn

An argument that the mind-body problem can't be solved by human beings.


5. Flow - Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

The scientifically tested secret to enjoying life. Why is happiness so elusive even though it's quite attainable, even for people of modest means?

More to come...

Friday, August 15, 2008

The 40 greatest grunge songs (15-11)

(Click here for the whole list.)


15. Hum - Stars

This starts out underwhelming, and then it blows you away.




14. Alice in Chains - No Excuses

Vocal harmonies have been largely neglected in rock music from the '90s onward, so it's nice to hear this kind of arrangement. The result doesn't really fit into "grunge" or any other category I can think of. It's just plain good music. (From their excellent acoustic EP Jar of Flies.)




13. Pearl Jam - Even Flow

The rockingest portrait of homelessness I've ever heard.

Freezin', rests his head on a pillow made of concrete...




12. Weezer - Undone (The Sweater Song)

Perfect nerd rock.

Watch out for the dogs!

If you want to destroy my sweater, hold this thread as I walk away...




11. The Breeders - Cannonball

How to make a great rock recording by stringing together one gimmick after another.

The album this is from, Last Splash, and their debut album, Pod, are both essential items in the music library of anyone who's into good '90s music.

Check, check, check, ah-ooooohhh-ooh...



>>> Go to #10-6 >>>

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The liberal time machine, part 1: same-sex marriage

Liberals have an odd tendency to artificially compress the timeline of history in order to exaggerate present-day burdens.

For example, Courtney Martin is a straight liberal who writes in The American Prospect about her refusal to get married as some sort of ill-advised protest against ... well, she seems to be protesting a huge cauldron of assorted social ills: racism, homophobia, gender roles, patriarchy... I'm getting worn out just listing all of America's evils.

What's Martin's problem with marriage? Click the link for the whole explanation, but this point is especially ludicrous:

I don't want to participate in an institution that's been historically sexist and currently discriminates against my gay friends, especially considering that my partner and I couldn't have been married in some states just 40 years ago (we're miscegenators)....
I can't think of a more glaring example of the tendency of liberals to willfully blind themselves to social progress. If one of your main gripes with society today is something that ended forty years ago, you're really lucky!

Martin's attempt to depict marriage as a racist institution despite Loving v. Virginia is unintentionally comical:
But the institution is still constructed in subtle ways to fit best with same-raced, preferably white, couples. Imagine a traditional wedding in which two white families are sitting on either side of the aisle. Now imagine a wedding in which one side is completely white and the other completely black. See the problem?
James Kirchik (the author of the above-linked blog post about Martin's article) has the right answer:
No, I don't. Sounds like a wonderful example of America's exceptional multiculturalism to me.
But even if you do have a problems with that specific tradition, don't blame the government -- blame ordinary people. They're the ones who choose to practice those traditions. The government doesn't care what you do.

If Martin really believes seating arrangements in interracial marriages are a "problem," she could just ... solve the problem by getting married without having "a traditional wedding." No one's forcing you to do things the way they're done in movies.

But that implies that she's arguing in good faith -- that she'd love to make society better, and has unfortunately been thwarted by the man. Well, that's hard to believe. For liberals like Courtney Martin, politics isn't about solving problems at all. It's about wallowing in them.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Monday, August 11, 2008

Don't "do what you love"

Of course, I'm not going to say you shouldn't do what you love! That's why I put "do what you love" in scare quotes -- as in, the familiar career advice to "do what you love."

Maybe a lucky few can truly live up to that advice. But Penelope Trunk says that the more realistic (i.e. better) career goals would be...

  • contributing to something larger than you are,

  • participating in society, and

  • being valued in the form of money.
That list is quoted from her simple but thought-provoking career advice.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The 40 greatest grunge songs (20-16)

(Click here for the whole list.)


20. Veruca Salt - Seether

This music video gives you a nice little recipe for coming up with a breakthrough hit song:

1. Write a lot of parts -- verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge -- but don't use too many different chords.

2. Make sure the chorus is a hook that people can't get out of their heads.

3. Use vocal harmonies liberally.

4. Have two cute female singers.




19. Collective Soul - Shine

This is exactly the kind of song that will get me in trouble with the official arbiters of grungedom (watch out -- they're out there!) for putting it on the list. "How can you include that lame MTV hit but not the real grunge like Mudhoney / Screaming Trees/ Afghan Whigs / Archers of Loaf?!"

Well, because I've never heard a song by any of those bands that I remembered the next day. "Shine" is a song I'll always remember.

Being commercial and accessible doesn't subtract any points from you in my book. I just care whether something's a good song or not. And this is.

Yeah!




18. Nirvana - School

Nirvana was always a heavy band, but they were more uncompromisingly heavy before they switched to a major label. "School," from their first album, Bleach, gives a taste of their early period.

The entire lyrics to the song are:

Won't you believe it, it's just my luck
No recess
You're in high school again



17. The Smashing Pumpkins - I Am One

This is the first song from their first album, back when they were a straightforward rock band with minimal frills. Billy Corgan and James Iha actually showed off their guitar virtuosity -- a relic of the '80s that would become verboten in the '90s (and even more so in the '00s). You certainly don't hear two simultaneous shredding guitars anymore.

There's something wonderfully unironic about this song -- possibly related to its surprising religiosity ("Time is right for a guiding light...").




16. Meat Puppets - Backwater

A solid, no-nonsense, well-constructed rock song. That's all.





>>> Go to #15-11 >>>

Thursday, August 7, 2008

What's that thing up there?

I've had a cropped version of this photo at the top of this blog for a while:




Ever wonder what it is?

Here's another view of the same thing:



M_____ told me the other day: "It doesn't give people a very clear idea of what the blog is about."

"Well, I think it actually does relate to the blog."

"Fabrics?"

Nope, it's not fabrics.

It's this!

Look at the enlarged version if you really want to get a sense of the scale. (Find the person!)

And here's some perspective on it.

It's in La Défense, the astounding financial district on the western outskirts of Paris.

An apt conversation by some English-speaking men (probably American), overheard from a nearby cafe table:
You know, if this were anywhere else in the world, this would be the center of the city. But here, it's just a relatively obscure suburb. This is what makes Paris so amazing.
Blogging under a Parisian banner -- that just shows you what an un-American, French-like, liberal elite I am.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Would having children make me happier?

I don't know the answer to that, of course. But it'd be pretty useful to know!

So this is a welcome finding -- not because I necessarily agree with the conclusion, but because the question is so emotionally charged that it's refreshing to see someone even attempt to answer it objectively:

"Parents experience lower levels of emotional well-being, less frequent positive emotions and more frequent negative emotions than their childless peers," says Florida State University's Robin Simon, a sociology professor who's conducted several recent parenting studies, the most thorough of which came out in 2005 and looked at data gathered from 13,000 Americans by the National Survey of Families and Households. "In fact, no group of parents—married, single, step or even empty nest—reported significantly greater emotional well-being than people who never had children. It's such a counterintuitive finding because we have these cultural beliefs that children are the key to happiness and a healthy life, and they're not."
Responding to Will Wilkinson's blog post on that study, Megan McArdle says: "I don't understand why Will Wilkinson finds this" -- that is, the study's findings -- "so surprising."

I don't understand why McArdle finds Wilkinson so surprised! I don't see the slightest expression of surprise in Wilkinson's post.

On the contrary, it seems like he has a pretty unflinchingly realistic take on the whole thing:
[T]he profundity of the experience of loving a child I think blinds many people to the very real costs of raising them. To accept that we have been made less happy in a real sense by our children threatens our sense of the profundity and the value of that bond. So people get upset when they hear this. But that’s not counter-evidence.
Those last two sentences are ones I had to re-read a few times to make sure I absorbed them. This is a key point that's often overlooked: your visceral aversion to an idea doesn't mean the idea is wrong.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Elevator environmentalism

"Get ready to rethink what it means to be green."

If you go to that link, you'll see a list of "10 green heresies," with 10 links to very short essays, each one about some supposed environmental heresy.

Some of them are, indeed, blatantly heretical for your standard environmentalist: don't go organic, for instance.

Oh, and Ronald Reagan might not have been that far off: trees cause global warming.

But what really gets me is this one: "urban living is kinder to the environment than the suburban lifestyle."

That one stands out not because it's so heretical, but because it's hard for me to fathom how it can be controversial.

Would anyone seriously take issue with the article's claim that New York City is one of the greenest cities in America?

From the link: "A Manhattanite's carbon footprint is 30 percent smaller than the average American's." To make it more vivid:

[G]uess what high-speed means of transportation emits less atmospheric carbon than trains, planes, and automobiles? The humble counterweight elevator put into service in 1857, which has made vertical density possible from Dubai to Taipei.
And does anyone seriously think that going camping or hiking to "get in touch with nature" is doing anything other than creating fun for human beings but actually depleting the planet overall? That is, if you have to drive your car to get there. Which is pretty likely.


(Photo of woman standing by elevator in the New Museum by Anne Helmond. Photo of Manhattan viewed from Brooklyn by Ann Althouse.)

Friday, August 1, 2008

The 40 greatest grunge songs (25-21)

(Click here for the whole list.)


25. Hole - Violet

From the band's unlistenable first album to their immaculate second album (which this song is from) is probably the most extreme, sudden improvement I've ever heard from any band. Gee, it's almost as if Courtney Love had someone else helping her out with the songwriting for the second album.




24. Blind Melon - No Rain

This isn't technically "grunge," but it fits in with the era. And I couldn't make a list of songs from the '90s without including this.

Don't make fun of bumblebee girl!

All I can do is just pour some tea for two, and speak my point of view...




23. Soundgarden - Black Hole Sun

It's hard to even hear this song for what it is since it's been so overplayed. The labyrinthine nine-chord progression of the verse is a rarity -- more akin to the Beach Boys' "Don't Talk, Put Your Head on My Shoulder" or the Beatles' "Because" than the average song from the '90s. These guys were really on a whole other level from most bands.

And isn't this the creepiest video ever?



Speaking of creepy, there happen to be two songs on this list called...


22. Stone Temple Pilots - Creep

Acoustic grunge. Taking a lyrical cue from Paul McCartney, Weiland laments his own inadequacy.




21. Radiohead - Creep

This is such a great little early '90s alternative-rock track, with its soft/loud formula and marketable alienation. Who would have ever thought the band that became famous through this song would go on to the staggering innovation and artistic achievements of its later works? Classic moment: the guitar noise right before the chorus. When I asked AskMetafilter for help with this list, one person said: "Ahem. Radiohead were never grunge." So I guess you think this song ... doesn't belong here?



UPDATE: IM response: "nice to have the 2 creeps together"

>>> Go to #20-16 >>>